Winnipeg Red Lights
by Joy Cooper
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 27, 1970-71 Season
In the early part of the century, Winnipeg, like any other frontier town, was plagued by the problem of too many men and not enough women. Following the law of supply and demand, sex inevitably became a highly marketable commodity in the form of prostitution, but as the public conscience would not tolerate any flagrant violation of the prevailing social mores, the sale of sex was to be officially ignored by confining it to a certain area of the city and thus quieting any twinges of guilt the respectable inhabitants of the community may have felt concerning its flourishing existence.
The advent of a social reform movement in Manitoba brought with it increasing pressure upon the civic authorities to eradicate the "social evil" of prostitution. The agitation of the social reformers was brought to a climax when a highly respected Presbyterian minister was reported in a Toronto newspaper as having declared that, "They have the rottenest condition of things in Winnipeg in connection with the question of social vice to be found in any City in Canada." The ensuing "crisis of conscience" of the Winnipeg citizenry prompted the City Council to request the provincial government to institute a Royal Commission to investigate whether indeed Winnipeg was the "rottenest" city in Canada. Its conclusions, of course, were negative, but the commission did establish that some remarkably fancy footwork on the part of the police, and thus indirectly, the Police Commission, was being employed to circumvent the enforcement of the law.
At the turn of the century, rapid industrialization and a large unassimilated immigrant population made for a socially unbalanced situation in which gambling, excessive consumption of alcohol, and prostitution thrived. The solution to the problem of prostitution, in the minds of most citizens, was to officially ignore it by permitting the business to be carried on in a certain, usually undesirable, location in the community, referred to colloquially as the "red-light district" or in more official language, the "segregated district."
The arguments rationalizing the existence of a segregated district usually centered upon the assumption that it was more beneficial to the social health and harmony of a community to have prostitutes and their deleterious influences separated from the normal daily traffic of city life. In this way, people and their children could be protected from the possibility of inadvertently being corrupted by exposure to immoral behaviour. Furthermore, it was maintained that isolating and concentrating prostitution in a certain area would render it more susceptible to medical and legal control. However, this last point was self-contradictory, for in allowing an area of prostitution to exist, however strong the police regulation, one also had to recognize the de facto legality of prostitution itself which was, of course, contrary to actual law.
Manitoba in this period was experiencing the first great boom in the West which had commenced with increased economic prosperity and immigration in 1897. Arriving with the boom were the concomitant problems of social instability attendant on rapid social change. Winnipeg, as the major urban center around which western development revolved, and thus the main beneficiary of the change, felt the greatest impact. The population almost doubled between 1900 and 1901 and urbanization was proceeding rapidly. Moreover, the proportion of males to females was socially unhealthy, being 121 to 100 in 1911. Thus Manitoba, and in particular Winnipeg, provided a fertile ground for the growth of prostitution; as the socially acceptable outlet for sex, marriage being restricted by the scarcity of females.
Although prostitution definitely appeared to be increasing tremendously at this time, it was, however, by no means a new problem in Winnipeg. The first Police Chief, John Ingram, was forced to resign after he was discovered ensconced in a bordello. As far back as the 1870's there were houses of ill-repute on the western outskirts of the city on Portage Avenue. As the city population expanded westward, the citizens in the district complained, and by a mutual agreement, the prostitutes arranged to move further west outside the bounds of the settled part of the city. It was understood by both parties to the unofficial compact that the prostitutes would not be harassed as long as they remained as unobtrusively as possible in their new district. Consequently, they set up a "colony" practically in the middle of the open prairie on Thomas Street which is now called Minto.
By the turn of the century, growth of the urban population had reached and extended beyond this area and once again the irritated citizens complained of the segregated area. They alleged that the existence of the district exposed their families to lewd and indecent behaviour; that the noise, drunkenness, and general debauchery were disruptive to their peace of mind; and that the area was a cause of decline in property values. Moreover, the colony itself had grown proportionate to the general increase in population, and now constituted about ten or twelve houses, with about seventy-five per cent of the inmates believed to be immigrants from the United States.
The citizens were joined in their protest by many prominent Protestant ministers, and as a result of this the prostitution question developed into an important issue in Winnipeg civic politics in 1903. A large headline in the Manitoba Free Press in November proclaimed a "Monster Meeting in Moral Crusade" had been held in the Winnipeg Theatre for "men only" and was so packed that there was no standing room left. At a meeting held before the rally at Grace Church, 1400 people were present to hear severe criticism levelled at the Police Commissioners for their policy of toleration of the segregated areas. The public agitation aroused by the reformers resulted in the election of a candidate for the mayoralty, J. Sharpe, who was opposed to segregation, and, subsequently, in the closing down of the houses on Thomas Street early in the new year.
In 1905 the issue again arose in the municipal elections as the closing of Thomas Street caused the dispersal of the bawdy houses throughout the city and as the number of prostitutes was evidently growing, undoubtedly because of the overall increase in population of the city. However, many people attributed the increase of the prostitute population to the anti-segregation policy, which they assumed presented greater obstacles to police control. Moreover, they resented the fact that bawdy houses were popping up indiscriminately throughout the city, occasionally in "respectable" areas. Thus a counter-movement began to persuade the city authorities to return to the segregation policy, to protect "good" citizens from the corrupt influences of prostitution.
Once again the Ministerial Association voiced its vehement opposition to the segregated area. In one speech, Dr. Salem Bland said that he understood the Chief of Police, McRae, to have reported that there were sixty odd houses scattered across the city at the present time whereas two years before there had been only eighty women in all on Thomas Street. Obviously, the police were not properly enforcing the law, but a return to segregation would only aggravate the problem. In the course of the campaign, the reformers persuaded all the candidates to declare their opposition to segregation, and as a result, during the remainder of the 1905 election campaign, the segregation issue disappeared but only to reassert itself in subsequent civic elections.
The prominent role assumed by the Protestant clergy in arousing and mobilizing public opinion around the prostitution question as indicated by the above discussion of the entrance of the issue into Winnipeg civic politics was a product of the general revivalistic and reformist mood which was fast gaining momentum in this period. The reform movement was at least partly a result of the reaction among the settled members of the community to the radically changing social conditions of an urbanizing and rapidly expanding population. Moreover, the challenge to the traditionally accepted values and ways of life of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon inhabitants presented by the non-British new-comers, added to the general feeling of social malaise. The social gospel preached by the clerical reformers had deep roots in the Puritanical spirit of the early settlers who had built the first communities from the wilderness in Manitoba and particularly in Ontario, from which many of the reformers came originally.
The fact that the reform-minded clergy were mainly Protestant but not Anglican probably stemmed from the evangelistic and non-institutionalized nature of denominations such as Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism. The early years of industrialization spurred them to renewed and revitalized efforts to stabilize and purify society according to the image they thought morally desirable. A kind of evangelistic fervour characterized their activities, and crowds flocked to their meetings to hear ministers proclaim against the evils of liquor, gambling, and prostitution. "The wicked element was usually just enough in evidence to stimulate excitement."
In Winnipeg, the social reform movement took hold quickly. Yet as the West became increasingly urbanized, the potential evils of the growing western city became the central focus of their attention. In Winnipeg, the majority of the support for the reform movement, as elsewhere, came from the Protestant denominations. Methodists, Presbyterians, and to a lesser degree Congregationalists and Baptists, composed over 185,000 of the provincial population of about 450,000 in 1911.
Specific organizations involved in the Winnipeg Reform movement were the "Women's Christian Temperance Union," the "Citizens' Committee for the Suppression of Vice" and the "Moral and Social Reform Association." The WCTU, which was mainly concerned with prohibition, was the largest local temperance society in the world. Since it was a violation of social norms for women to even mention the word prostitution, they did not become extensively active in the segregation issue although some discussions and meetings were held on the subject. By 1910, some women in the city overcame their traditional inhibitions and condemned segregation publicly. They went so far as to endorse candidates for the municipal election according to their stand on the segregation issue. The Citizens' Committee was about one hundred and fifty strong in 1910, but was mainly an ad hoc group organized to present local citizens' complaints to the city authorities. The Moral and Social Reform Council, founded in 1907, was the strongest advocate of the anti-segregation policy. A contemporary tabloid weekly newspaper, the Statesman, sponsored by the organization, characterized the group as a "federation of the religious and social reform bodies for consultation and cooperation with respect to legislative reform growing out of their common Christianity." Groups affiliated with the Council at one time or another were the Trades and Labour Council, the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, the WCTU, the Unitarian Conference, the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, the Scandinavian Anti-Saloon League, the Polish National Catholic Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Greek Church, plus the aforementioned Protestant denominations which dominated the leadership of the organization. "In brief, the Council represented labour, farmers, temperance groups, and practically all religious bodies in Manitoba." The Council's activities revolved around all aspects of the social evil question including the liquor traffic, gambling and prostitution.
Prostitution, or more specifically, the segregation issue, appears to have declined in significance after the 1905 civic election until it erupted into the scandal of 1910. However, beneath the seemingly tranquil surface, events took place which would serve to indicate that the City Council either deliberately ignored the situation as it developed, or, more probably, was simply unaware of how the Police Commission, the agent ultimately responsible for control of prostitution, was acting in this connection-a case of the right hand not knowing what its left was doing. The Board of Police Commissioners was a committee of City Council directly responsible for the City Police Department. It consisted of five members: The Mayor (officially designated as the Chief Magistrate of the city), the County Court Judge, the Police Magistrate, and two aldermen elected by the Council to serve one-year terms on the Commission.
In 1909, a letter from T. Mayne Daly, City Police Magistrate, to the Board of Police Commissioners, of which he also happened to be a member, spurred the commission to revert to the discarded policy of segregation. In the letter, dated April 20th, Daly alleged that the present policy was ineffectual. He complained that conviction of the prostitutes under the system was almost impossible, and, that even if he did manage to convict them, they always seemed to get out of it on appeal by some technicality or another. The law could not be adequately enforced when the women were "at large" in the city. The existing system, he declared, "has proved to be an utter failure." Conditions were now worse than during the Thomas Street era because the houses were scattered all over the city. To substantiate these claims, he quoted statistics obtained from the Chief of Police allegedly showing that the number of prostitutes was increasing. However, if Mr. Daly had examined his figures a little more closely, he would have realized that they contradicted his statements concerning his inability to obtain convictions, for the percentage of convictions had risen from 46 per cent in 1907 to 69 per cent in 1908. "Immorality seems to be spreading," he stated, "arid what to my mind is the worst feature of the whole matter is the fact that I have ascertained from the medical men that venereal diseases are increasing very rapidly." The other members of the Police Commission apparently did not recognize the weakness of his statistics nor the flimsy quality of his evidence "from the medical men" and took to heart his conclusion that "the best thing the Board can do is to refer the whole matter to the Chief of Police with instructions to act in accordance with his best judgment towards relieving the City of the terrible and growing evil." Accordingly, a resolution, moved by Daly himself, gave full authority to the Police Chief McRae in regard to the prostitutes.
The Commission's action, in effect, meant that the Police Chief could circumvent the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to prostitution which expressly forbade it, and set up a police-regulated segregated district along the lines of the old Thomas Street area. According to the evidence of Chief McRae given at the Royal Commission hearings, it was clearly understood by both the Commissioners and himself that the new policy would be to locate the prostitutes in one section of the city. As he said, the plan was "that these people were to be got together if possible in one place by themselves in order that there might be more effective enforcement of the law," which, is, of course, a contradiction in terms.
Consequently, McRae went to see Minnie Woods, (popularly known as the Queen of the Harlots), because, he said, she had been a "housekeeper" in the segregated area of Thomas Street before, and presumably therefore, would know all the ropes. He testified at the Royal Commission hearings that he had asked her if she thought segregation was possible, and when she replied affirmatively, he told her that selection of a suitable location was entirely up to her - "The responsibility is all yours. I have nothing whatever to do with that." Apparently, however, he did not feel quite so disinterested as he claimed, for when she suggested a site in Point Douglas as being appropriate because it was relatively isolated, being alongside the gasworks, east of the railroad tracks and bounded by the Red River, he managed to contact a real estate dealer, J. Beaman, and have him call upon Woods in order to make arrangements for the big move. Subsequently, Beaman began operations by buying up as much of the designated area as he could.
The area chosen by Minnie Woods comprised two streets in Point Douglas known as McFarlane and Rachel (the latter is known as Annabella). In the years preceding the decision of the Police Commission, the population was predominantly Anglo-Saxon in origin but of lower socioeconomic status. A study done in 1909 indicated that in the Point Douglas area as a whole a sizeable immigrant population had started to settle in the district. Labourers, teamsters, and railway workers were typical occupations of the residents. The population was quite transient and the majority of the houses were tenant occupied. In terms of current market values, the houses were probably worth up to $5,000.
The decision of the prostitutes to locate in this particular area was undoubtedly influenced by several factors, including the relative in expensiveness of the houses, the easy accessibility of renting or buying as most of them were not owner-occupied, and, above all, by the fact that it was in close proximity to the C.P.R. station and the downtown district. The Police Chief probably approved of the location because it was in relative isolation from the homes of more well-to-do and established Winnipeggers, and, secondly, because since 1900 newcomers (designated in the Henderson Directory not by name but as "foreigners") had begun to move into the area. In fact, Chief McRae admitted at the Royal Commission hearings, that the Rachel-McFarlane area was only one of several locations suggested by Minnie Woods, and presumably due to the above reasons, he had approved of it as the best.
The real estate dealer whom McRae referred to Woods, Beaman, pounced upon the offer immediately, as he correctly perceived that it could potentially be a very lucrative proposition. The supply of houses, as noted above, was abundant and cheap whereas the demand was relatively inelastic, as the prostitutes had little alternative but to purchase in the area. Consequently, he proceeded to purchase as many properties as he could and then re-sell them to the prostitutes at exorbitant prices. For example, several prostitutes who gave evidence under the protection of the Canada Evidence Act at the Royal Commission hearings stated that they had paid Beaman up to $12,000 for a house. Marjorie Morrison testified that she gave $8,000 to Beaman for a building on Rachel which, according to the Tax Roles, was not worth more than $5,000 together with adjoining property. Another, Lila Anderson, said her house on McFarlane cost her $12,000, but it was only evaluated at roughly $3,000 by the city assessors. Beaman admitted at the Commission hearings that he bought up twenty-two houses in the area in the summer of 1909 and that he made a profit of about $70,000 on the deals. McRae's choice of Beaman as the middleman is somewhat suspect. It was alleged by current gossip that Beaman was related to McRae, but the latter vehemently denied this at the Commission hearings. He did admit however that Beaman was "merely a friend who was hard up and whom he had helped before." The interesting thing is that Beaman was never registered as a real estate agent in Winnipeg.
The mutual understanding of the Police Chief and the prostitutes upon which the latter decided to relocate in the area was that the houses would be allowed to conduct business as usual as long as they kept themselves as inconspicuous as possible. McRae stated that the regulations imposed by the police were that the prostitutes were "not to parade on the streets, to solicit on the street, not to go uptown, not to call on the downtown district; that they were not to have any manifestations of disorderly conduct; that all outward manifestations of disorderly conduct would be suppressed." Loud music and distinctive markings on the houses such as bright lights or enlarged house numbers were prohibited, but he went on to admit that the women were allowed to come uptown as long as they reported their visits to the madam and returned by eight o'clock. Furthermore, on these occasions, they "must behave themselves and dress quietly." In other words, the prostitutes were free to prostitute themselves as long as they did so politely and quietly. However, McRae claimed that he never indicated to their spokeswoman, Minnie Woods, that they would be "undisturbed" in the district. The Morality Officers of the Police Department were responsible for seeing that adherence to these regulations was maintained. The women would be subject to apprehension for "disorderly houses, thefts, robberies, the admission of persons who should not be there and traffic in virtue." Obviously, if the foregoing statement had any truth in reality, the prostitutes would never have bothered to move to Rachel and McFarlane in the first place.
Meanwhile, the City Council, with the exception of His Worship, Mayor Sanford Evans and two other aldermen who were members of the Police Commission, apparently remained blissfully unaware of the Commission's actions in regard to the prostitution problem. On July 19, 1909, a motion was passed resolving "That the Council pledges itself to support the Police Commissioners in their every effort for the suppression of the Social Evil where found to exist in our City. And further, to provide funds from time to time to meet expenses in enforcing the law." When the Council began to receive complaints from various citizens in the Point Douglas area in September, they very conscientiously decided to delve more deeply into the matter and accordingly planned to meet with the Police Commission. The result of this meeting was the following council report, dated September 29, 1909:
Clearly, His Worship Mayor Evans, had done a successful job of whitewashing the activities of the Police Commission for the City Council members (with the exception of the aldermen on the Commission) were not even aware that the Commissioners had instigated the "congregation" of the prostitutes on Rachel and McFarlane. There is a possibility that they knew, of course, but as their discussions have not been published verbatim, this cannot be ascertained.
In the meantime, public indignation over the state of affairs on Rachel and McFarlane was growing. The local papers published reports attributed to various prominent citizens, including the Rev. James Allen, Dr. A. J. Douglas, and Rev. J. S. Woodsworth, condemning the situation. The City Council responded in its usual pious manner by passing a resolution declaring:
Mounting public pressure to eradicate the segregated area, and in particular, agitation by the Moral and Social Reform League, prompted the Council to take more positive steps in February of the next year. They decided to appoint a joint committee of City Council and the Moral and Social Reform League to "discuss the Social Evil in this City." The City Council portion of the proposed committee met in March, 1910, to consider measures to be taken. The only result of this, their first and last meeting, was a typical resolution recommending that the City Council "request" the Police Commission to stamp out the bawdy houses, and accompanied by a stern pronouncement "that all persons, male or female, found in such resorts in breach of the law, shall without exception, appear in Court."
However determined this committee was, it soon dissolved into oblivion because, according to Sanford Evans, the self-confessed author of the joint committee idea, the Moral and Social Reform League "preferred to proceed with their own methods" and would not participate. This was quite understandable, for the qualifications of the Moral and Social Reform League members of the joint committee, as laid down by the City Council under the direction of Evans, were that they had to be "lay" persons. This provision would, of course, conveniently eliminate the most vocal members of the group, the clergy.
As the controversy developed, it became apparent that public opinion did not stand in a monolithic block behind the social reformers' anti-segregation campaign. One letter to the editor of the Free Press approved of segregation because it kept the rest of the city "clean." As evidence for his assertion, the writer stated that in Vancouver, where an anti-segregation policy was tried at one time, "contamination" of "respectable" citizens had resulted. One writer chastised the clergymen for making an issue of the district, for by doing so they "advertised" it.
J. M. Fraser, an official of the Citizens' Committee, pointed out that the segregated district could not be compared (as many did) to a small pox area in quarantine. People were not allowed to enter or leave at will a small-pox district as they were in a segregated area, nor do the police oblige every "affected" person to move into the segregated district as they do with small-pox victims. Moreover, he stated, the argument that prostitution could never be eradicated, just as thievery was impossible to totally eliminate, was fallacious. Whenever a thief is detected, he noted, especially in the neighbourhoods of Armstrong's Point or Wellington Crescent, the police always find the means to remove him.
Reasoning such as Fraser's seemed to appeal to the general public, and especially the affected citizens in the Point Douglas area. A meeting of citizens at the Point Douglas Presbyterian Church early in November condemned the City's inaction and urged those present to vote only for candidates in the coming election pledged to remedy the situation. A meeting of reform-minded women representing ladies from "practically every church and society in Winnipeg" urged the abolition of the district and called for new legislation making males and property owners involved with the bawdy houses equally culpable. Margaret Scott spoke and declared the situation was "Satanic" and "unspeakably wrong."
The controversy would have probably continued in this humdrum style, with the reformers making accusations, the City Council passing self satisfying and pompous resolutions, and the Police Commission persisting in their merry machinations, if the following sensational headline had not made its timely appearance in the Toronto Globe:
The ensuing story was based on an interview with Rev. Dr. J. G. Shearer, General Secretary of the national Moral and Social Reform League, a respected Presbyterian minister, notable for his role in persuading Parliament to pass the Lord's Day Act in 1907. Dr. Shearer had just returned from a month's tour of western Canadian and American cities, including Winnipeg, under the auspices of the International Purity Federation. The Globe report read in part:
Another Toronto daily, the Toronto Star, printed a report of an interview with Dr. Shearer prefaced with the headline "Wicked Winnipeg Wallows in Vice." These and several other similar reports in Toronto newspapers triggered a violent reaction among "respectable Winnipegers" and particularly the City Council, the main target of the allegations. That Winnipeg should be vilified as the "rottenest city in Canada" by the Eastern establishment was too much for the adolescent social pride of a growing community to bear.
The week following the Toronto reports, the social reformers and the City Council publicly aligned themselves behind and against Dr. Shearer's statements. The Free Press noted that his assertions were being "hotly commented upon in Winnipeg." The same paper went on to add that the City Council felt that the charges were only a part of the campaign of Mr. D. E. Martin, the anti-segregation mayoralty candidate supported by the reformers. The impression is general around the city hall that Dr. Shearer's aspersions are simply a portion of a campaign organized with the intention of boosting the chances of the anti-segregation candidate for the mayoralty chair." One councillor even went so far as to claim that Dr. Shearer should be prosecuted for slandering the "name of the city." However, the most interesting part of the Free Press's report was its discussion of Mayor Evans' attitude:
A more accurate version of Evans' real feelings about the situation was presented by the Winnipeg Telegram, a partisan Conservative newspaper of which Evans had formerly been editor and which he still owned. The Telegram was not quite so calm. Angry editorials denounced Shearer as a "monomaniac" a "dangerous publicity hunter" - and a "liar and a slanderer."
In the meantime the social reformers were not maintaining such public tranquillity as was attributed to His Worship. On the same day as the above Free Press report was printed, the Moral and Social Reform League, at a luncheon packed beyond capacity, arranged that a "great mass meeting" would be held the following Sunday to discuss action to be taken. On Saturday the Presbyterian Synod met and placed the blame for the situation squarely on the substantial shoulders of the Police Commissioners. They charged that the latter and also the Police Chief had ignored the express wishes of the "electors who had declared themselves against segregation." Rev. Principal Dr. Patrick presented the report of the Synod's committee on moral and social reform in which he declared that the vital issue in the upcoming civic elections should be the moral one of segregation. The Synod upheld Dr. Shearer and attacked the Telegram for slandering him. Accordingly, they passed a resolution noting their high esteem and confidence in Dr. Shearer, and claiming to have possession of statutory declarations confirming his allegations. Mr. Fraser, a representative of the Citizens' Committee on Vice, spoke to the Synod and informed them that his organization hoped to bring out a complete ticket of anti-segregation candidates for the civic election.
During the same weekend, the civic election campaigns moved into high gear in what the Free Press observed, "promises to be one of the most severely contested campaigns ever fought in Winnipeg's municipal history." At a meeting held in North Winnipeg, the focus of the candidates' remarks was the segregation issue. E. D. Martin, the reform mayoralty candidate, declared that the vice district should be abolished and the women sent back to the United States from which the majority of them came. Controller Waugh, who along with Controller Harvey, constituted Martin's opposition, claimed that this was a negative attitude: "It is useless to go to the women and say, 'Go elsewhere, go to Portage la Prairie, or go to h- - -, if you like, so long as you clear out of Winnipeg!" Whether in appreciation of his profanity, or because of agreement with his position, the crowd cheered wildly at this point. Alderman Gowler, in a rather weak attempt to exonerate himself from his inaction in Council in regard to the segregated area, said very judiciously, that "it was useless to keep on speaking in the council," so therefore, very wisely, "he had kept his ammunition to use when the time was ripe."
On the next Monday, the City Council finally arrived at the decision that some positive action had to be taken. Their momentous decision was undoubtedly fortified by their increasing awareness as politicians that the present mood of the electorate was not conducive to their hoped-for-reelection to Council. Accordingly, they passed a resolution requesting the setting-up of a Royal Commission to investigate the validity of Dr. Shearer's charges.
The same night a very timely raid by the police was made on McFarlane Street. Unfortunately however for the Police Commission, it was not so effective in influencing public opinion favourable to the authorities for their conscientious enforcement of the law, for the Free Press reported that the officers were met with protests by the inmates such as "But I paid my license a little while ago." By the "license", the Free Press explained, "they probably meant 'fine,' having recently been summoned and convicted on the same charge."
The day after the City Council meeting, the newspapers quoted His Worship, Mayor Evans, as saying (with just pride, I might add), "I have refrained with one exception from discussing this question during the two years I have occupied this position." The personality quoted probably never made a more revealing statement of his political operations. One righteous alderman, Macdonald, made it his business to put on the record that he thought that "Winnipeg was not the rottenest city in the Dominion, but ... that today Winnipeg is morally one of the cleanest cities in Canada."
The Royal Commission, presided over by Justice Hugh A. Robson, Judge of King's Bench, commenced the investigation on November 23 with almost indecent haste. The Mayor contended that speed was essential to produce the full facts of the case before the coming civic election, but as it is highly unlikely, as the Mayor must have known, that any Commission Report could be completed in so short a period of time (in fact, the Commission did not submit its report until the middle of January in the following year), it will be assumed that Mayor Evans and his cohorts on the Council and Police Commission, thought it was to the political advantage of their public image to appear so eager to proceed with the hearings. The Moral and Social Reform League and the Citizens' Committee, as Evans and the Council had probably anticipated, were taken by surprise at the announcement of the investigation, and, consequently, asked Justice Robson for an adjournment in order that they could arrange for counsel and collect their evidence. He granted their request - they were given an extra day.
The evidence given at the Commission hearings largely corroborated the main charges of the social reformers as outlined in this paper - i.e. that a segregated district had been set up on Rachel and McFarlane Streets and thus explicitly violated the law. Police Chief McRae was singled out as the main perpetrator of the situation, thus shifting the eye of public recrimination from the elected officials responsible, to the man who had simply carried out their express wishes, albeit in his own inimitable manner. However, the charge of graft and the impugning of Winnipeg's character, appeared to be the central focus of the investigation. A few choice testimonials have been selected to indicate the tenor of the Commission hearings.
Sanford Evans, upon taking the witness stand, admitted making the decision to segregate the prostitutes. To justify his actions, he said that a deputation of citizens had waited upon him in April, 1909 and complained about the bawdy houses in their area. He said that they felt so strongly about it that they threatened to take the law into their own hands (and "burn certain houses on Ross and Pacific Avenues," as Alderman MacMeans added), also, he stated, police reports of increases in illegitimacy, disease, and the number of prostitutes had made him ready "for any change that gave promise of better conditions." However, he could supply no concrete evidence of these developments.
Morality Officer Leach, in response to questions concerning the alleged increase in bawdy houses inside and outside the segregated district, replied that the reports of bawdy houses outside the district were exaggerated, for these houses were not actually houses of ill-repute but simply homes in "a great number of localities where they get drunk on payday and have a jamboree." He agreed that a good percentage of the madames were French and Negro, but that allegations that they were not allowed to employ white domestics were fallacious.
Adjutant McElheney of the Salvation Army testified that his group's efforts to rehabilitate and "rescue" women from the area were frustrated by the police regulations, (and thus implicitly making nonsense of Evans' righteous statement, when giving his evidence, that positive reform measures should be taken by the social reform groups instead of simply complaining). Also, McElheney claimed, the unrestricted flow of liquor in the area was an obstacle to successful efforts by his workers. "When they wanted to come away some of them in charge would jolly them and get them drunk."
Furthermore, Shearer's charges that the liquor traffic was allowed to continue in this area subject to a quarterly fine of about $100 was substantially corroborated by the evidence which showed that although the maximum fine for third offenses of this nature was $1000, it was never imposed by Police Magistrate McMicken.
A number of old residents in the area testified at the hearings as to the immoral behaviour of the prostitutes and their clients. Most of them stated that the women in their families had been accosted by drunken men on the streets and that men frequently exposed themselves publicly in the area. One man, John Mitchell, claimed that he saw nude women parading up the street and another said that, along with the usual sightings of "naked legs, you know," he had seen nearly nude women riding on horseback down the street. Mitchell stated that he and some other citizens had gone to Mayor Evans complaining about the situation and that the latter had replied that he didn't have the power to do anything about it. One distressed lady, a Mrs. Morefield, mother of ten children, said she had complained to Chief McRae about the prostitution and that he had replied that if she didn't like it she could leave and live with her children on a vacant lot in a tent. McRae was called to the stand to counter this charge and he claimed that the woman's allegation was false. He never remembered even seeing her. Judge Robson reminded McRae that her evidence would still stand because according to the rules of evidence, loss of memory was not considered as sufficient to refute it. Upon this, McRae's memory remarkably improved, and he admitted seeing her but said that the remark about the tent was only "casual" conversation.
Dr. Shearer, who had been recuperating from illness in the United States, appeared to give evidence at the conclusion of the hearings. He reiterated his charges, but qualified the statements attributed to him by the Toronto newspapers. Explaining their meaning "in connection with the statement 'they have the rottenest condition in connection with the social evil of any city in Canada,' he said he did not mean that Winnipeg was the rottenest socially, but that he referred to the administration or nonadministration of the law in regard to vice. He added that he had never meant to charge the police or officials specifically with graft, but that he referred particularly to the abnormal prices for which property in the district was sold to the women, also to the revenue taken by the provincial license department, without any real effort to prevent the sale of liquor ..."
The hearings thus adjourned with the result that Winnipeg was mollified to the extent that it was definitely not the "rottenest socially" city in Canada, and City Council had succeeded in transferring the spotlight to the police and liquor authorities rather than appearing as responsible for the situation, which, of course, they ultimately were.
The civic election campaign during the hearings was proceeding apace. The campaign reached a peak at the beginning of December when Sanford Evans, apparently feeling sufficiently exonerated in the public eye by his upright stand throughout the hearings, announced his decision to run a third term.
The ensuing election campaign was probably, as the Free Press noted, "the most strenuous campaign in the history of municipal politics." Evans emerged from the battle as a master of political strategy. His campaign was highly polished, well-organized and ruthlessly efficient. He and his newspaper the Winnipeg Telegram, succeeded in skillfully reversing the issue before the electorate to Evans' advantage. Martin and his followers, on the other hand, operated a more plodding campaign which was rather conventional in all respects but the issue itself and the vigour with which they attacked it. They displayed little of the political savoir faire of Mr. Evans but a great deal more sincerity.
The Telegram had begun its campaign for Evans long before he proclaimed his candidacy. It announced the Royal Commission investigation with a front-page headline - "Mayor Evans Gives Lie to the Insinuators." In the following "report," the paper subtly revealed the tactics it was to pursue. These were to change the focus of the campaign from the real issue raised by the reformers, i.e. the non-enforcement of the law regarding prostitution, to the ersatz one of protecting the city's reputation from the attacks of the reformers.
In an editorial the following day, the paper sanctioned Evans as the "logical candidate." The editor emphasized that Evans was not contesting the election to defend himself but "to vindicate the city." He reiterated the usual "cleanliness" slogan-that Winnipeg was surely not any more, if not less, socially rotten than any other city - and attacked the motives of Martin and the clergy. "They are permitted to fill our pulpits with pruriency and instill images of indecency in the minds of young and old." In addition, he noted the self-sacrificing action of Waugh and Harvey as a "fine instance of public spirit." He concluded with the remark that Winnipeg was fully behind Evans.
Near the close of the campaign Evans addressed a rally at the Walker Theatre of which the Telegram gave the following depiction: "Rapturous enthusiasm is the only description which fits the condition in which some 3000 citizens of Winnipeg found themselves." Evans furiously attacked the reformers as "yellow pulpiteers" who "have preached defilement in its visionary state to hundreds of virgins and young men whose minds were pure before." Undoubtedly the ministers concerned were quite surprised to find themselves portrayed as the propagandists of illicit sex.
Martin's election campaign was good by usual standards. He had the vigorous support of many church groups and ministers, plus three ex Mayors, T. Sharpe, T. Ryan and J. H. Ashdown. There was extensive advertising in the newspaper and personal canvassing together with literature distribution. He was reported to have issued 100,000 pamphlets. On the other hand, Evans' campaign organization was reminiscent of the vast political machines of American city bosses. He had an extensive ward organization with at least fifteen committee rooms scattered at strategic locations throughout the city. Moreover, his capacity for speech-making seemed to be unlimited. On a typical night during the campaign, he addressed four separate meetings. One incident in connection with this aspect of the campaigns is interesting. At a large meeting for Martin in North Winnipeg, the proceedings were interrupted by the entrance and consequent commotion of forty or fifty drunken "hooligans" who, the Free Press reported, appeared to be led by one well-dressed but unidentified man.
The newspaper ads of the two contestants indicate the very different styles of the campaigns. Evans' were clever and evidenced a psychological technique comparable to modern high-pressure advertising. They played upon the voter's ego. Martin's advertisements were typical of the period. The larger ones elaborated at length the arguments of the social reformers - a kind of advertising specialists in this field have long discarded.
Evans was rewarded for his skillful campaign when the results were declared. He was elected by a majority of over 1500 votes, and every incumbent councillor was also returned who contested the election. The Free Press said it was the heaviest polling on record in Winnipeg civic elections and reported throngs of people blocking traffic on Portage Avenue in the vicinity of the Free Press Building awaiting the results as the ballots were counted. The most startling results of the election was that Evans had collected a majority of 475 votes in Ward 5, which encompassed the segregated area. He won every poll but one.
The general consensus of opinion was that Evans won because of his personal popularity and his effective administration of city affairs in other matters. The Free Press interviewed J. S. Woodsworth in regard to the outcome in Ward 5. Woodsworth maintained that the vote did not indicate people in the area approved of the segregated district but that "the foreign element was unaccustomed to civic elections and had very little knowledge of the rival candidates of their policies. To a large extent, foreign electors were in the hands of key men, who in turn were cogs in political machines." He said this showed the necessity for educating and "Canadianizing" the foreigners. "Unless that was done the foreign element would be a peril and a menace." Woodsworth's analysis is surprising in view of the fact that the "foreign element" probably was not even a significant factor in the Ward 5 campaign. The property qualifications for the franchise would effectively eliminate most of the immigrants.
The conclusions of the Royal Commission which were not made public until January 1911 condemned the segregated area, dismissed charges of graft and corruption, but made it clear that the law was not being properly enforced. Robson reported that there had been no attempt to restrict the bawdy houses in the area and that illicit liquor dealing in the area was extensive, with no evidence that the liquor laws were being properly enforced.
Despite the strong language of the report, its fate was to gather dust on the shelves of the Legislative Library. Although the McFarlane Street houses had been cleaned out almost completely by 1913, according to the Henderson Directory listings of that year, Rachel (changed to Annabella in 1914) continued to swing as the red light district of Winnipeg for many decades afterwards. A provincial government report on veneral diseases noted in 1943 that the red-light district had effectively disappeared. "It is to the credit of the Morality Department that this situation has been completely cleared up. Prostitution in order to operate at all now has to operate behind a 'front'." As a segregated district, it is true the McFarlane-Rachel area no longer existed. However, four suspicious women were still listed in the Henderson Directory in this year. The last of the red-hot mamas finally disappeared from the Directory in 1954.
The significance of this issue in Winnipeg politics was that it demonstrated clearly the zeal of the moral reform movement of that period and the impact it had upon the community. Furthermore, it illustrated in full profile the effect the operations of a skillful and shrewd politician such as Sanford Evans could have upon the political process.
Page revised: 27 September 2015